Synchronize Your Sales Process With the Customer’s Decision Process

Timing is everything!

Editors tell authors to never ever start a blog post with a cliché. Despite appearances, I always follow that advice, and here’s why the above – when applied to selling – is most definitely not a violation of that writer’s rule. Competition is intense. Depending on luck to win is therefore foolhardy. It doesn’t matter how fervently you hope your timing is right. As a sales rep, you must make your timing right.

To ensure that the clock is in your favor, synchronization of your sales process with the customer’s decision process is essential. To illustrate the point, we’ll first briefly define the two processes and then graph them to deliver some insights.

All sales pros are familiar with the funnel or pipeline concept. Although your definition of stages may be slightly different, what follows is good generalized model:

  • Identify Opportunities – Figure out who might, maybe someday buy something from me.
  • Gain Attention – Schedule a face-to-face appointment with the decision maker.
  • Establish Interest – Get the decision maker’s commitment to deploy time and resources to investigate and evaluate my offerings.
  • Conduct Discovery – Find out everything I need to know about the prospect’s business to write a compelling proposal.
  • Present/Propose – Write a compelling proposal and if possible, formally present it.
  • Close – No definition necessary…

Surprisingly few in sales have spent a lot of time thinking about the customer decision process. (Isn’t it a bit embarrassing for so many of us to have ignored something so obviously important?) Here’s a bit more detailed outline of a good generalized decision model:

  • Develop Strategic Plan – Based on the organization’s vision and mission, top executives examine their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. They then lay out strategies for each of their major functional areas along with an organizational structure and means to measure and control operations.
  • Design, Implement and Execute Business Processes – In great detail, functional and operational managers determine exactly how each and every employee, tool and asset will be deployed to efficiently execute strategy and achieve desired results. In addition, they develop and track performance against budgets which ultimately get rolled up into Income Statements and Balance Sheets.
  • Respond to Problems – Murphy’s Law is still in force. Quality of strategy, plan and tactics notwithstanding, stuff happens. It must all be addressed …NOW!
  • Define Needs – Operational level managers figure out what they need to carry out the “C-level” plans, execute the VP-level business process designs and react to everything that Murphy throws at them; keeping everything within budget.
  • Identify Alternatives – Those same managers apply their personal knowledge skills and contacts and that of their subordinates to research what is available to help them fulfill all those needs.
  • Evaluate Alternatives – Everybody (at least it usually seems like everybody…) gets involved in tweaking, asking, changing, criticizing, measuring, judging and gagging at the price of all aspects of all alternatives.
  • Decide – No definition necessary…

With the basic definitions in place, let’s take a look at how all the pieces interact. Note how the vertical axis in the diagram below shows the sales process from bottom to top and the horizontal axis shows the decision process from left to right.

Assume that a sales rep is currently in the “Identify” sales stage for a given opportunity at a given account.  If the customer is at the “Plan” or “Execute” decision stage, the rep’s timing is great, and thus those two squares are green.  If the rep is at “Identify” and the customer is at “Decide,” the rep is very, very late to the game and has little or no chance to win.  That square is red.  He has a chance (i.e., a yellow square) if the customer is still figuring out exactly what is needed, but he better get cracking!  If the customer defines needs without the rep’s involvement, the rep is stuck with being in react mode and is headed toward a price war.

Along the top row of the diagram, the rep who is trying to close a deal while the customer is still defining needs will be at best be viewed as too pushy and at worst really annoying.  It would be much better to start closing while my customer is still looking around for alternatives.  That means I’m out ahead of my straggling competitors and have already had the opportunity to frame the decision criteria in my favor.

Take the time to think through the situation for every one of the boxes in the diagram.  Then think through each of your current opportunities.  How good is your timing?  What actions do you need to take to get back in sync with your customer?

In particular, think through the implications of finding yourself in the single most commonly occupied spot – right on the border of “Attention/Interest” while the customer is at “Evaluate Alternatives.”  Sales managers see this over and over.  The customer has already figured out what is needed and is already familiar with multiple sources of supply and is now evaluating alternatives.  Out go the phone calls to the suppliers.  In come the reps trying to establish the customer’s interest in helping them gather facts and study the situation.

Well, the customer has already completed Discovery and already “knows” what you should propose.  The customer wants a proposal now.  And the customer wants your best and final price, NOW.

As shown in the diagram below, the customer has forced you to skip over several critical steps of your sales process.  The customer has made one of your green squares red.  You are hopelessly caught in react mode.  You can either compete on price or walk away from the deal.

The diagram provides a visual aid to make it abundantly clear that a rep must get engaged much earlier in the decision process in order to stay inside the green, proactive zone.  More specifically, if the customer has a crisp answer to the question, “What do you need?”, the customer is into identifying and more likely evaluating alternatives, and you had better be delivering your proposal; which means your Discovery is finished and you have long since gained a thorough understanding of their strategic plans, business processes and problems.

Based on research conducted by The YPS Group, most industrial sales reps live in the red and yellow zones at the bottom and right of the diagram.  The key indicator of this is the percentage of potential deals where price is one of, if not the key decision criteria.   At the risk of becoming repetitious, if you are constantly getting beaten up on price, you are entering the game too late in the decision cycle.  Customers are forcing you to omit the phases of your sales process that enable you to shine; to clearly demonstrate your “value-add.”

So what are the eagles doing?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best performing sales reps (i.e., those closing the biggest deals with high margins and total territory sales exceeding $3 million) spend the bulk of their time in the “super green” zone at the center-left of the diagram.  Their focus is on cross-departmental communication regarding the thought behind, the nuances and the implications of the customer’s strategic plan, business processes and problems. Let that thought sink in for a minute or two…

The eagle reps are providing a service that is extremely valuable to the top customer executives.  It is a service that has literally and absolutely nothing to do with the products and services provided by that eagle rep’s company.  It’s all about cross-departmental communication within that customer.

Re-read the definition of the “Develop Strategic Plan” stage of the decision process.  How many of a customer’s employees spend a lot of time thinking about those issues and how they can, do and should affect day-to-day activity?  Not very many, if any.

Re-read the definition of the “Design, Implement and Execute Business Processes” stage of the decision process.  How many of a customer’s employees spend a lot of time thinking about those issues and how they can, do and should affect day-to-day activity?  Not very many, if any.

Further, how many folks in one department thoroughly understand how their actions affect folks in other departments?  (As an example, think about how a “simple” change in a manufacturing process could wreak havoc in maintenance.)  Not very many, if any.

Ditto the above for the “Problem” stage.

Customer executives know that internal and inter-departmental communication is crucial.  Look at all the executive management books written on the subject!  But do they really have the time to communicate well?  Do financial or production or procurement executives have anywhere near the communication skills of a polished sales professional?  Isn’t it obvious who could be really effective leading the charge for better internal communication?

Back to the diagram to reinforce the point…

Eagle reps understand customer strategic plans, processes and problems so thoroughly, and communicate them so well, that they enable customers to leap-frog over significant pieces of their decision process.  Eagle reps use their knowledge about customers to define their problems, what they cost, their root cause and how to address them before they even realize they have a problem.

How could a top executive not be impressed with a sales rep who consistently proposes money saving and money making solutions to problems nobody even knew existed?  Why bother with identifying and evaluating alternatives?  The eagle makes those steps superfluous.

Not that it’s easy…

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that implementing any of this will be easy.  The effort it takes to get to the “super green” zone for even one account is significant.  It’s also a different kind of effort that requires broad, general management knowledge.

On the other hand, differentiating your products is getting harder and harder every day.  Maybe it does make sense to focus more selling time on those early stages of the customer decision process.

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